Nine Inch Nails - Pretty PR Machine

By Jay Shukla for STV.com on March 26, 2007

From McDonalds to Microsoft, it has become second nature for big business to use viral marketing (unorthodox advertising methods that hijack pre-existing social networks) to try and achieve a personal connection with an increasingly fickle and savvy public. It's Sony's corporate grafitti; it's Borat's ubiquitous catchphrases; it's snakes on a mother****ing plane. Dig?

So what happens when your favourite band gets viral on your ass? Well, if Coldplay have been rocking your decks then no doubt you've done the sensible thing and switched to Fair Trade coffee. If, however, you happen to enjoy listening to a certain angry young man's tales of fist-****ing, pig-hating and self-destructing, then you probably already think that the government are tapping your phone and doping your water supply. Step forward Mr Trent Reznor - you ****ing scamp.

It all started with a t-shirt: a seemingly innocuous tour souvenir which featured a series of apparently randomly highlighted letters. Placed together, these letters spelled out the URL of a website which contained information on a drug called Parepin: a mysterious toxin which has been introduced into the water supply by the government in order to quell any revolutionary thinking among citizens.

"Has been introduced"? Well then, what have the BBC got to say about this? Nothing yet, my pet, because you see (get those skins ready) these are websites from the year 2022. Further investigation revealed a complex network of dozens more sites, each elucidating aspects of a dystopian future (christened Year Zero) in which ghostly arms reach down from the sky to terrify the population and a biologically-altered military rely on "Jesus Christ and The Holy Ghost to Guide their Rifles true."

Though Reznor's conceit borrows heavily from sources such as Brave New World and 1984, and its presentation has echoes of Bowie's aborted Outside trilogy (the Thin White Duke is an acknowledged hero of Reznor's), its shrewdness lies in the way that fans have been allowed to feel as though they are discovering new elements for themselves - even if they are being manipulated as surely as the citizens of Year Zero itself.

If the Year Zero story could be said to be lacking imaginatively, its literal execution - in the form of the music which will appear on the forthcoming album - has been flawless. Even here, Reznor's conceptual theme is seamless: numerous tracks have been deliberately leaked already (via USB sticks left in the toilets at NIN gigs - a viral gesture par excellence) and spectrographs of the sound waves therein has revealed hidden telephone numbers which... well, you get the point.

And what of the music itself? Thankfully, for the thousands of obsessives who have been watching the Year Zero phenomenon unfold over the past months, it's excellent. The ostensibly minimal, electronics-heavy production is in fact layered with many subtle facets that reveal themselves over time, but it is lyrically that Reznor's songwriting has made its most significant evolution. The comparatively vague angst of 2005's With Teeth is here replaced with a ruthlessly focused rage, as filtered through the perspectives of numerous denizens of Year Zero. For all of Reznor's conceptual game-playing, this is an unashamedly political record - a fact which adds real weight to Reznor's chilling apocalyptic wordplay.

"Art is Resistance" - thus runs the title of one of the Year Zero websites. In appropriating the methods of the PR companies to promote his own art, Reznor is not only leaving himself open to attack, he is raising serious questions about control, manipulation and authenticity. But whatever your opinion on Reznor's motives, it's clear that a fantastic effort has been put into getting people thinking, talking and asking questions about this impending Year Zero. And if he sells a few cds off the back of it, then hey, he's probably earned it.

The album Year Zero is released through Nothing/Island on 16 Apr

Transcribed by Lt. Randazzo

View the NIN Hotline article index